By RENEE FITE
After losing her job in late 2012, one area woman seized the opportunity to focus on art as a business.
Lisa Rutherford specializes in 18th-century arts, saying her passion is traditional pottery and 18th and 19th century textiles, clothing and beadwork.
“I have been making traditional pottery since 2005. I dig my own clay, clean and process it, build my pottery by hand coiling, and fire in a wood fire,” said Rutherford. “I took a photo in 2012 when I was firing pottery. That was the first time I had fired in an open fire where I could see the pottery glow. I had it printed on canvas for the Potter and the Painter exhibit – the painter being Delaware artist Jim Van Deman – at Red Earth Gallery in Oklahoma City.”
To make or not to make is not a question for Rutherford.
“I couldn’t not make art. It’s an expression of culture, of myself, my feelings, my environment,” she said. “[I get inspiration from] a song, the way the light hits a tree, certain colors next to each other, shapes and forms that look interesting together,” she said. “I have a photo of a friend on my wall and I’m going to make a clay sculpture of him because I like the way he is standing, holding a war club, wearing his 18th century Cherokee clothes.”
Art is important to a culture because it’s the best indicator of it, she said.
“You can look at engravings, sculpture, tools, artifacts and see what items the culture used, what they wore, how they lived,” she said.
After doing beadwork in various forms, she began to focus on southeast appliqué Cherokee beadwork in 2006, when she also began to research and make historic clothing, using materials that were authentic as possible to the late 1700s and early 1800s. A hand-tied feather mantle, or cape, which she recreated in 2011, is based on descriptions by DeSoto as early as 1540 of clothing worn by Cherokee women in the late 1700s, when he first encountered Southeast tribes. Rutherford is one of only a few people making them.
“I really want to do more beadwork and oil painting, but I’ve had to focus on pottery and feather capes to pay the bills,” said Rutherford.
Early intruders described men’s clothing, but did not describe women’s clothing, with rare exceptions, so the lengths and colors aren’t documented, she said.
“I believe they were worn for warmth rather than status. The cape is made on a hand-tied net base that is contoured to fit the shoulders, and women’s capes are just elbow length. Men wore longer ones,” she said. “Each feather must be folded and tied, then sewn on individually. It is very tedious, boring work.”
She had a grandmother who enjoyed painting and allowed Rutherford to play with her oils and pastel crayons when she was 4 and 5 years old.
“I had a book that showed how to draw horses, dogs, people, basic things. I was too young to read, but I looked at the drawings and tried to draw them,” said the award-winning artist.
2013 was a great year for prizes. She won two first place awards and two Best of Division awards at Eiteljorg Indian Market in Indianapolis, a Best of Division at Southeast Indian Art Show and Sale at Chickasaw Nation in Tishomingo, and several other ribbons.
Today she’s focused on traditional arts, and doesn’t have a lot of exposure to non-native art.
“I enjoy other art, but the traditional art is more interesting to me,” she said. “I like knowing my ancestors made things the same way I am making them.”
She considers herself fortunate to have studied with Cherokee National Treasures, recognized by the Cherokee Nation for promoting and preserving traditional arts – like Martha Berry, Bill Glass and Anna Mitchell.
“Martha Berry taught me southeast appliqué beadwork, and pushed me to teach. I had not worked in clay since college, but in 2005, I visited Bill Glass’s studio and he put me to work. I was a studio volunteer for the public art project that Bill’s team installed at Ross’ Landing in Chattanooga, Tenn., the major trail head for the Trail of Tears,” she said. “I know my family passed through that location, so it was rewarding to know I am part of the art project that remains a Cherokee presence at Ross’ Landing.”
Jane Osti taught her traditional pottery in the year Rutherford worked with her.
“Jane also taught me about entering shows and guided me through my first Indian art markets. Anna Mitchell, who revived traditional pottery here in the Cherokee Nation, is another of my influences,” she said. “Knokovtee Scott taught me to work with shells. All of the above are Cherokee National Treasures. Sharon Irla taught me oil painting, Joel Queen [Eastern Band Cherokee] taught me the paddle stamped pottery method.”
Cherokee, N.C., has been her second home, and many friends there have shared and taught various art forms to Rutherford, like 18th-century clothing and moccasins.
“I’ve studied artifacts at the Archaeological Survey at University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, the McClung Museum in Knoxville, the Museum of the Cherokee Indian in Cherokee, N.C., and at Gilcrease in Tulsa, among other places,” she said.
Her work is available in the Spider Gallery, Red Earth Museum Gallery in Oklahoma City, and at her studio in the Cherokee Arts Center.
She participates in Indian Art Markets including Santa Fe Indian Market, Eiteljorg Indian Market in Indianapolis, Red Earth Festival in Oklahoma City, Southeast Art Show and Sale (SEASAM) in Tishomingo, and the Cherokee Art Market at Hard Rock Tulsa.
She belongs to the CNTA, a group of self-organized Cherokee National Treasures working to preserve and promote Cherokee traditional arts and artists, not to be confused with the selection committee.
“Our current project is a Cherokee cookbook. The big project is interviewing and recording elder artists. They can talk about anything they want: art, family life, traditional life, boarding school, military service, anything at all. It’s their story,” Rutherford said. “We have lost six National Treasures in about two years, so we want their voices and their stories to be preserved.”